Legoland coming together as a family destination
ANYONE who shares a house with a child aged between two and 15 would be extremely lucky to have never suffered the extraordinary agony of stepping on a piece of Lego. It's enormously popular again and it's a rare parent who doesn't spend silly amounts of time helping their little darlings put it together – and asking them to tidy it up again.
So imagine the joy my six-year-old daughter Eliza felt when she learnt she would be staying at a hotel pretty much made of the stuff and where there was no chance whatsoever that anyone – even her mum – would be stifling her creative genius with housekeeping banalities.
Throw into the mix that this hotel is on the doorstep of Legoland in Florida – a place we were reliably informed has the biggest ice creams in the world, temperatures just hot enough to really feel like you're on holiday and a water park to boot, and suddenly life's looking pretty rosy indeed.
Legoland Florida has just opened its first on-site hotel on the banks of Lake Eloise at Winter Haven, an idyllic location on and around what was Cypress Gardens, the original Florida theme park established more than 75 years ago.
Merlin Entertainments has big plans for expanding Legoland Florida itself too, and is banking on the expectation that the strength of the brand and its focus on younger children will encourage families to make the 45-minute drive out of Orlando to visit – and hopefully stay a night or two.
A Lego Friends Heartlake City section opens this summer, but Merlin has made a point of carefully restoring some of the loveliest original features of the park, where Southern Belles once paraded in the botanical gardens, with its vast and stunning Banyan tree, and on the lake's boardwalk.
Even the original carousel has been restored and is in operation, and draws a steady stream of children to its intricate horses and old-school tinkling tunes.
But first things first and we're checking in to the hotel, where Lego Minifigures are displayed behind the desk. The boring wait while parents complete the formalities is enlivened considerably by an enormous pit of Lego bricks just begging to be dived into.
Look a little further and a multi-level adventure playground, complete with rubber swords, is the perfect place to burn off energy pent up during the flight and drive.
The only thing that could possibly lure children away from this paradise is a Lego-themed room complete with a nightly treasure hunt, and even the journey there is via a lift with feet-activated music and a disco ball.
This is clearly a hotel that has been designed very much for children – and as we all know, happy children make for happy parents. Its location is barely a two-minute walk from the Legoland park entrance, and so after a restorative night in our adventure-themed but luxuriously appointed room, followed by a hearty breakfast, we set off for more Lego-themed roller-coaster action.
Some visitors have mentioned that the park is not really big or thrilling enough for teenagers, and understandably so, but for those with young children, it offers a gentler and more manageable experience under the shade of beautiful old trees, without any fear of tears when that exciting-looking ride is only for "children a little bit bigger than you".
We spend a relaxing day in 30C temperatures on roller-coasters just exciting enough to elicit shrieks from everyone on board, but gentle enough to ensure there's still a smile at the end, and when it all gets a little hot, we take the World of Chima ride, which leaves us happily drenched from the waterfalls and fellow rider's water canons.
There are Star Wars, Technic and Imagination zones, but after lunch we make a beeline for the three schools – boating, flying and driving – the latter boasting separate tracks for younger and older children.
My daughter just makes the older age group and sits through the mandatory safety video that explains the importance of stopping and giving way with a slightly furrowed brow, while I fear there's no way this experience will pass without catastrophe.
Happily, however, it turns out that we parents haven't given the children nearly enough credit and they display a tolerance and courtesy to their fellow drivers that probably puts most of us to shame. It's very cute and it's by far the most realistic children's driving experience I've ever seen.
Legoland Florida also keeps the park's heritage of water-skiing shows alive with a 'Pirates Cove'-themed performance featuring swashbuckling baddies, making it safely the only place in the world where you'll see five fully-costumed Lego figures sailing over a ski ramp behind a jet boat, while parents take in the views of the beautiful Lake Eloise.
It's the quirky little features of this place that make it such a worthwhile destination, and one of these is the shop selling Granny's Apple Fries – a Florida original.
You might say that only in the US could you find such an unhealthy version of fruit – the apple fries are served in a thick cinnamon batter with a large dollop of sugary cream – but they are delicious and fortify us for the 200m walk back to the hotel – which by this time of the day, feels like a Himalayan trek.
But this is where the hotel comes into its own. Merlin has installed UK bosses at its Florida sites, so there's a fantastic selection of beers are on tap in the bar, just crying out to be enjoyed by the pool.
And it's no ordinary pool, either, but one of a safe depth, complete with two lifeguards to watch over the children as they build rafts out of large foam Lego bricks while they recalibrate their body temperatures in the balmy evening warmth.
The scene couldn't be further from that after a day at the bigger theme parks, where chances are, you'd be overseeing an exhaustion-induced meltdown of monumental proportions.
The next morning, we opt for a half day at the on-site Legoland Water Park, which features a lazy river where children can use rafts they have customised themselves with bricks.
In the afternoon, we venture back in to Orlando where Merlin has opened the Orlando Eye, Sea Life Orlando and Madame Tussauds. They offer a calm space where children can escape the heat to ride into the sky and try and spot where they've been over the last few days, or wander around the aquarium looking at everything from sharks to stingrays, and learning about the planet's ecosystem and what they can do to help.
There's just one thing left to do before we head to the airport and that's track down that enormous ice cream of legend – cue a stop-off at Ben & Jerry's for a double scoop.
As first trips to the US go, it doesn't get much better than this.
:: Josie Clarke was a guest of Legoland Florida Resort (legolandhotel.com), where rooms start from £138 per night (two adults/up to three children) including breakfast and Master Model Builder Workshop.
:: Attraction Tickets Direct offers the Legoland Florida Water Park Combo Unlimited Ticket, which gives unlimited admission to Legoland florida and Legoland Florida Water Park for up to 14 consecutive days. £59 per adult, £54 per child (3-12 yrs) and £5 per infant (2 and under). To book, call free on 0800 086 1135 or visit www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk
:: Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com; 0344 209 7777) flies twice daily from London Gatwick to Orlando.